Robert J. Flaherty (1884-1951)

  • Janis Essner
  • Jay Ruby
Keywords: Biographies, Expeditions, Explorers, Flaherty, Robert Joseph, 1884-1951, Geological exploration, History, Motion pictures, Belcher Islands, Nunavut, Nouveau-Québec, Inukjuak region, Québec

Abstract

Robert J. Flaherty is probably best remembered for his first film, Nanook of the North. Less well known are his experiences as an arctic prospector-explorer on the Mackenzie expeditions and the exploration of the remote Belcher Islands. ... His love for a primitive, unsophisticated way of life developed early, and as a young man, Flaherty persued a career as explorer, prospector, and railroader. He worked in a Michigan copper mine and for the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, and he prospected for marble on Vancouver Island and for iron ore at Lake Huron and the Mattagami River. It was while his father was employed by Mackenzie and Mann in Toronto that Flaherty met Sir William Mackenzie. ... It was Mackenzie's judgment of men and his receptiveness to new ideas that helped start Flaherty on his career as a filmmaker. ... from the Inuit ... Flaherty learned of the Belcher islands. Their descriptions led him to believe he would find mineral deposits there. He reported his findings to Mackenzie, who excitedly asked him to make a second expedition. Flaherty set out on this 19-month-long expedition in 1911. ... During the summer of 1912 he made a cross-section of an area of over 30 million hectares. Upon returning to Lower Canada, he again reported his findings to Mackenzie. Although at the time his survey results were thought to be mineralogically unimportant and economically unfeasible to work, their significance was later realized. Mackenzie, impressed by the Inuit tales, insisted Flaherty should go to the Belcher Islands by proper ship. ... Early in 1914 Flaherty began filming Inuit women, igloo building, conjuring dances, sledging, and seal hunting. ... In 1920 Flaherty met Captain Thierry Mallet of Revillon Freres, who agreed to finance a filmmaking expedition to the company's sub-arctic fur trading post, Port Harrison on Cape Dufferin. Departing in August 1920, he travelled up the Innusuk River with a group of Inuit who had agreed to participate in the project. He filmed under the harshest of circumstances for man, camera, and film, journeying as far as 960 km to shoot a bear-hunting scene. He returned home in August 1921. Nanook of the North (1920-1921) was the beginning of Flaherty's filmmaking career. His passion to communicate his experiences resulted in other films, in all of which a recurrent theme occurs: through their struggle with nature, human beings are purified, cleansed, and achieve maturity and dignity. ... His achievements under incredibly severe hardships assure his place not only in the history of Canada, but of the world. As an arctic explorer, Flaherty's contributions were significant. Today, untold wealth is mined in Ungava and the Belchers. As a filmmaker, Flaherty's contributions were monumental, creating a documentary film tradition that continues to engage audiences and to influence filmmakers.
Published
1987-01-01
Section
Arctic Profiles